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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Dreamcatcher in Top Form in Riveting Distracted

Also see Bob's review of Puma

Distracted
Scott McGowan, Harriett Trangucci and
Harry Patrick Christian

Lisa Loomer's richly imaginative and wise Distracted, a fantasia on the questionable diagnoses of attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, has landed with precision in New Jersey amid a cluster of upper class communities which are noted for their competitive families' concentration on the development and education of their children (these families will fully understand the mother in Distracted who says, "'Average' is such a sad word, nowadays. Everything's got to be excellent"). Dreamcatcher Rep's sharply observed, hilarious and heartbreaking production would likely become the talk of the towns and sell out indefinitely if this scrappy little actors collective had the resources to get the word out as to the subject matter and the incisive wisdom and theatricality they have brought to the Playwrights Theatre Madison stage. Although it world premiered at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum in 2007 and arrived at the Big Apple's Roundabout (Pels) in 2009, Distracted feels as urgent and up to date as if Loomer had pulled it fresh from her computer this morning.

Mama and Dad's nine-year-old son Jesse is a hyperactive pain in the ass. He is resistant to performing his school work, makes a production over anything that is required of him (getting him to put on his pajamas is an ordeal), inappropriately acts out among his classmates, and even curses at his parents. Mama is bombarded with advice from interfering neighbor parents with their own difficulties and agendas, teachers, a pediatrician, homeopathist, an allergist, and various psychiatric authorities (including an "educational neuropsychiatrist") whose pressuring advice is to place Jesse on drugs (Ritalin). Although Dad is dead set against putting Jesse on drugs, he is distracted with his own pressures and is distant. Mama is not too happy with the idea, but she finds the pressure to yield, including the real threat of Jesse's being sent to special ed even though he has no learning disability, too strong to resist.

Loomer's play is styled as an absurdist comedy. Six actors play fifteen roles. The actors (particularly Harriet Trangucci as Mama) address the audience directly—one actor breaks character to argue with the position of the person whom he is portraying—and comically emphasize their character's transparent and bilious self-centeredness. Characters verbalize the true thoughts (or, at least, what Mama thinks to be the true thoughts) that they certainly did not say. Mama is the audience's concerned and relatively centered (with the help of St. Francis' famous prayer) surrogate who is trying to overcome her own distractions from modern society's overly committed and information-bombarded lifestyle and help her son.

However, Loomer and her subject matter are deadly serious and her play cuts painfully and deeply. As the play moves further along, it appropriately and smoothly progresses from the absurd to the dramatic. However, even at its most absurd, Distracted has a strong core of reality.

Loomer provides us with much to think about. One example of a multitude is the homeopathic doctor who tells Mama how the definition of ADD was broadened. "They hold a convention at a nice hotel ... invite the top psychiatrists, propose a broader definition that includes more symptoms and vote. The whole shebang was paid for by the drug company that makes Ritalin ....A broader definition means that they can diagnose—and medicate—more kids ...."

Even the throwaway lines lay you out. Mama tells a caller from her college, "I'd love to donate to the Alumni Association, but I haven't lived up to my potential and I don't have any available cash".

Harriet Trangucci is the frazzled center of the play. Her richly three-dimensional characterization never loses sight of Mama's quick sense of humor while providing the anchor for the theatricality around her. Scott McGowan is solid as Dad.

The other four actors triple and quadruple in Distracted's other roles. Noreen Farley and Beth Painter play a teacher, doctors and neighborhood mothers with both comic and dramatic effectiveness. Jessica O'Hara-Baker movingly depicts the secret desperation of seventeen-year-old Natalie in her principal role.

As he has so often on New Jersey stages, Harry Patrick Christian displays nothing short of comic genius in three doctor roles. There is a guileless delight and a glint in the eye that sets aside the finest comic actors from the pack. It is a rare quality, and Christian displays it in full flower here. Adding joy to joy, Christian also plays nine-year-old Jesse. Jesse is only heard throughout the play (as Mama thinks that the stage is not a good place for him to be). However, Jesse appears for the final scene, and Christian brings Distracted full cycle, combining its absurdity and poignancy in the image of Jesse as the play concludes.

Laura Ekstrand has directed flawlessly, eliciting performances which extract the full measure of Distracted's humor, poignancy and intelligence. The fragmented video images and ever-changing photographs that are integral to Loomer's concept are absent here. Very possible for the better. The distractions and encroaching fragments which batter modern life are ever present in a script purposely overloaded to demonstrate that so called ADD describes the way most of us function today. It seems that further distractions would hamper our ability to absorb all that Distracted has to offer.

It is a rare treat to see a socially relevant play that is not simplistic and politically correct, and allows every viewpoint to be strongly presented (and sharply critiqued) in the context of a royally entertaining and emotionally involving story.

Distracted continues performances (Friday & Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 2 pm) March 20, 2011, by the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre performing at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison.

Distracted by Lisa Loomer; directed by Laura Ekstrand

Cast: Harriet Trangucci (Mama); Scott McGowan (Dad); Harry Patrick Christian (Jesse/ Dr. Daniel Broder/ Dr. Jinks/ Dr. Karnes); Beth Painter (Dr. Zavala/ Sherry/ Carolyn); Noreen Farley (Mrs. Holly/ Dr. Waller/ Vera); Jessica O'Hara-Baker (Natalie/ Waitress/ Nurse)


Photo: Steve McIntyre


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- Bob Rendell



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